By Jennifer Paquette
His stale breath clung to my pajama top. His hands reeked of endless cigarettes, dirty fingers stained with nicotine. The weight of him at the end of my bed would always send me sliding towards him. I wiggled back up to my pillow, my fists pressing down to keep me in place. I studied his dark green pants and big work boots. Tonight, they were untied.
“How’s Grandpa’s favorite girl?” he asked, reaching for my knees that I clamped shut, his hand hanging over them.
“I’m sick to my stomach,” I murmured. “A boy kicked a ball into my tummy at recess.”
His other hand popped the top of a can with his thumb while I hovered above myself, imagining I was small enough to slide through a window crack, my mother holding a star like an umbrella as she floated down, she and I gliding together above the grass, my arms snug around her waist.
“Be more careful at recess.” He took a swig of beer. “We’ll play tomorrow night.”
He uncrossed his ankles, work boots moving away from me. He left the door open, and I crept across the yellow shag carpet, slow and silent, closing it again. This is the first night I pretended to be sick. Turning on the Raggedy Ann bedside lamp, I reached for my stuffed giraffe.
I lay Spots on the bed, close to the wall. Pulling the torn comforter over him, only his nose peeked out. Crawling in beside him, I dropped my right arm over his chest, holding my breath as I heard Grandpa in the hallway.
When you grow up, we’ll leave and never come back, Spots whispered.
We knew I needed to be old enough to not be a runaway, like the girl with the sagging eyes whose picture was in the Sunday Ledger before police found her the next county over and brought her home. Old enough to bus tables or stock shelves, I’d leave when I could because I’d given up on my Aunt Sandra, who drove three hours for a visit when I was ten years old. Refusing to sit down, her eyes darted about the kitchen, never landing on her father or me.
“Look,” she said, bracing herself against the kitchen sink, “my husband says our house isn’t big enough for another kid. Anyway, you’ll be sixteen before you know it.” Then she left, her coffee still warm on the counter.
So, I took index cards and numbered them one through six with thick magic marker. The years were stashed in my desk drawer, card edges worn thin from my fingers rubbing them every weekend. Whenever Grandpa opened my door, I floated through the windowpane, drifting sideways in the sky to the huge maple at the corner of Main and 11th, nestling in the top of its branches, unseen.
Fourth period of my freshman year, I slipped in and out of biology class like a ghost, but Mrs. Reilly always saw me. After school, I stayed in the bleachers watching blue bleed out of the sky, and sometimes Mrs. Reilly would come sit with me. She would grade papers while the varsity football team practiced. When the last player left the field, she would stay a little longer. Then, she’d stand up and say, “Time to go.” I’d nod and head home to fry two hamburgers and boil a bag of frozen peas.
Last fall, our sophomore class took a field trip to a nature preserve. The bus drove through Carson along the way, passing a department store with fake women in the window that wore bell bottom pants, neon halter tops, and shiny rain slickers that didn’t cover enough of their bellies. The University Diner glowed on the corner. When we got to the preserve, we walked long trails and wrote down bird species we saw. Then, we rode back to Carson and piled into the diner. With only a few dollars in my pocket, I ordered a cup of vegetable soup, hoping the waitress would bring a lot of crackers.
The waitress came back to our table, balancing a loaded tray on her palm with only her legs moving, holding herself stiff. I thought her starched uniform, buttoned to the neck, would fit me perfectly. I slipped the paper menu out of its yellowed plastic sleeve and folded it up small. Later, I hid it in my nightstand, studying the menu for months until I had all the soups, platters, daily specials, and prices memorized.
Today is my birthday, the birthday. Spots is now more grey than brown, his mane tattered, but I lower him into my backpack anyway, surrounded by pants and shirts, a blue poncho, and babysitting money from the back of my sock drawer. I rub his nose and kiss him gently between the ears. We are done with 431 Main Street, apartment 2D. The river will lead us to a place where the town whistle doesn’t blow at 5:15 p.m., Monday through Saturday, shrieking night has arrived.
As the sun breaks the horizon, I tear the index cards in half and throw them on my carefully made bed. Grandpa’s snoring pierces the hall. I tiptoe to the front door where his boots stand upright and empty. Crouching down, I stuff the greasy tongues deep inside, choking each boot. I tie the laces in as many knots as they could hold, two brown worms hanging dead over the ankles. Then, I curl my fingers around the cool doorknob and open it without a sound.